Black Rhode Islanders Are Two-And-A-Half Times More Likely to Be Arrested for Marijuana Possession than Whites, and Seven Times More Likely in Certain Counties, According to New ACLU Report

According to a report released today by the ACLU, blacks in Rhode Island were arrested for marijuana possession at 2.6 times the rate of whites in 2010, and were seven times more likely to be arrested for this offense in the counties with the smallest minority populations. The report also shows that racially disparate arrest rates for marijuana possession have existed in Rhode Island throughout the ten-year period studied (2001-2010). These major disparities exist even though national studies show that blacks and whites use marijuana at roughly similar rates.

ACLU of Rhode Island executive director Steven Brown said today: “Enforcement of marijuana laws adversely impacts the lives of too many Rhode Islanders in too many ways. Even more disturbing is the racial impact of the enforcement of these laws. The disparate arrest rates between whites and blacks, particularly in those areas of the state with small African-American populations, are shocking. It is incumbent on every police department to re-examine its practices in enforcing these laws and address these indefensible disparities.”

According to the statistics for Rhode Island gathered for the National ACLU report, the racial disparities in arrests were well above the national average in Bristol and Washington Counties, the counties with the lowest percentages of minority residents in the state. In Bristol County, where African-Americans make up 1% of the population, they were 7.4 times as likely as whites to be arrested for marijuana possession offenses. In Washington County, with a 1.4% African-American population, blacks were 6.9 times more likely to be arrested. (The national average was 3.7.) By contrast, in Providence and Newport Counties, where larger numbers of African-Americans resides, the arrest ratios compared to whites were 2.7 and 2.8 respectively – still extremely high but below the national average. Over the course of the ten years studied in the report, the racial disparity in marijuana possession arrests has varied from 2.6 to 3.6 black-to-white.

Statewide, police officers made 2,253 arrests for marijuana possession in 2010, and those arrests accounted for 59.1% of all drug arrests that year.

Rhode Islanders have begun to recognize the toll that enforcement of the marijuana laws takes. Two months ago, a new state law decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana took effect. The use of marijuana for certain medicinal purposes has been allowed in the state since 2006, and last week the Senate Judiciary Committee heard testimony from the ACLU and others in support of a bill that would legalize, tax and regulate marijuana. The National ACLU report conservatively estimates that Rhode Island spent almost $12 million enforcing marijuana laws in 2010.

“The war on marijuana has disproportionately been a war on people of color,” said Ezekiel Edwards, Director of the Criminal Law Reform Project at the ACLU and one of the primary authors of the report. “State and local governments have aggressively enforced marijuana laws selectively against Black people and communities, needlessly ensnaring hundreds of thousands of people in the criminal justice system at tremendous human and financial cost. The aggressive policing of marijuana is time-consuming, costly, racially biased, and doesn’t work.”

Key national findings from the report include:

  • Nationwide, between 2001 and 2010, there were 8.2 million marijuana arrests. Over 7 million, or 88%, of these arrests were for possession (versus for sale or distribution). In 2010, there were over 889,000 marijuana arrests – 300,000 more than arrests for all violent crimes combined that year. Over 780,000 of those arrests were for possession.
  • The racial disparities exist in all regions of the U.S., in both large and small counties, cities and rural areas, and in high- and low-income communities. Disparities are also consistently high whether blacks make up a small or a large percentage of a county’s overall population.

The report calls on states to legalize marijuana by licensing, taxing and regulating marijuana production, distribution, and possession for persons 21 or older. The report notes that at a time when states are facing budget shortfalls, taxing and regulating would allow them to save millions of dollars currently spent on enforcement while raising millions more in revenue that could be invested in public schools and community and public health programs, including drug treatment.